Story by Joy Beckerman
Industrial hemp and the fullness of its extraordinary destiny are making a glorious union thanks to the perseverance and ingenuity of brothers Ed and Carl Lehrberger and their recently retired partner Dr. Dick Wingerson, of Fort Lupton, Colorado.
“Everything you can do with oil, you can do with biomass and feedstock,” says Ed, PureVision’s President and CEO, who adds that the other main “focus of this company is to get away from trees and to be tree-free.”
PureHemp Technology, LLC (“PureHemp”) is rapidly commercializing its patented hemp refining technology to economically refine industrial hemp into a myriad of value-added consumer and industrial products. PureHemp was formed by parent company PureVision Technology, Inc. (“PureVision”) to use the new biorefining fractionalization technology developed by PureVision to quickly turn hemp stalks into raw materials for the manufacture of thousands of hemp-based items and applications.
PureVision advanced and patented certain continuous countercurrent reactor (“CCR”) technologies to economically convert non-food biomass into fiber, pulp, sugars, lignin and extracts, and has licensed this technology to PureHemp. In addition to traditional uses such as pulp for papers, tissues, personal hygiene and building products, there are emerging products and markets that can be produced from hemp using their technology, such as beverages, plastics, sweeteners, composites, chemicals, nutraceuticals, resins and sealers, etc.
“The PureHemp initiative offers new business opportunities for farmers, end-product manufacturers, entrepreneurs and investors,” said Lehrburger.
Ed and his brother Carl founded PureVision Technologies with Dick in the early 1990s, and Dick conceived PureVision’s patented technology in 1999. PureHemp was founded in 2014 upon legalization of industrial hemp cultivation in Colorado.
Dick was the second graduate to receive a Doctorate in Nuclear Engineering from MIT, which he earned while serving as a Senior Scientist in the Air Force. After completing his distinguished 25-year military career (by then a Colonel), Dick built a home in Crested Butte, CO in 1974. Ed started his first year of college in 1974 at Western State College in Gunnison, CO, just 32 miles from Crested Butte and met Dick while playing music there during that period. Carl has been in the renewable energy industries for over 40 years.
In 1993, after making some money in real estate and finance, Ed invested in a piece of real estate in Fort Lupton, CO—a group of eight cannery operation buildings that used to be the Fort Lupton Canning Co. and functioned from 1898–1979. It was a good deal, though a run-down property with many problems and a canning building that had housed hundreds of pigeons for over a decade. The team has literally been repairing and improving that industrial property every year since. “A to Z Storage” was born at the cannery as each building was restored, and A to Z Storage has became the financial backbone propelling PureVision forward to this day. In 1996, the PureVision headquarters were moved to Fort Lupton.
Everything old is new again, but with a sustainable petrochemical-competing twist. “Just like the canning company,” explains Ed, “we’re taking locally grown plants as an input and processing them. We want to promote industrial complexes that promote farmers and local producers.”
Ed bursts with pride as he extols the phenomenal wealth of talent in the world class team that he and his co-founders have built and the beyond encouraging results of their research and development.
When the people of Colorado voted to legalize the cultivation of industrial hemp, Ed was appointed by the State Legislature to serve on an advisory committee to assist with policy formation and drafting as a result of PureVision’s extensive experience in working with biomass for so many years. It took about two years to establish the policies. At one of these advisory committee meetings Ed announced for the first time that PureVision was going to be in the business of doing what they do anyway—expanding biomass into industrial hemp.
Biomass is green plant matter or biological mass that is made up primarily of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, and is generally the “non-food” portion of plants. Using the corn plant as an example, the kernels are starch (food), while the leaves, stalks and cobs are the biomass portion. In hemp, everything but the seed oil is considered to be biomass. Unlike oil refineries, biorefineries take in non-food biomass to produce the intermediate products and chemical building blocks for making countless consumer and industrial products.
The four dominant output product streams from PureHemp biorefineries are glucose sugar and pulp from cellulose, xylose sugar from hemicellulose, and lignin. These four intermediates are the foundation for producing a myriad of bioproducts, including pulp-based products (tissues, toilet paper, etc.) alcohols, chemicals, fuels, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, binders, coatings, adhesives and other precursors for manufacturing plastics and composites.
The hemp plant is composed of approximately 20% lignin, which is a polymer in plants that provide rigidity. Conventional lignins are contaminated with chemicals from the pulping process and aren’t suitable for formulating into plastics and higher value products. Lignin recovered from the PureVision technology is more akin to a native or natural lignin and has been determined by third parties to be suitable for many higher value applications including making a variety of different plastics, fuels, specialty chemicals, coatings, binders and adhesives.
The majority of the hemp plant is composed of cellulose and hemicellulose, which are made up of complex sugar molecules. The cellulose is composed primarily of glucose and the hemicellulose is made primarily of xylose. “Hydrolysis” is the process of breaking down biomass into sugars and lignin. Conventional hydrolysis techniques include using enzymes (enzymatic hydrolysis) and concentrated acid. The PureHemp hydrolysis technique uses neither concentrated acid nor enzymes to recover the glucose and xylose sugars and lignin, and instead uses an advanced countercurrent reactor developed by PureVision that rapidly recovers the sugar and lignin streams from biomass.
Hemp grows more rapidly than trees, grows in a wide variety of soil and climates and requires less water than most crops. With dwindling water supplies and continuing drought throughout much of the US, traditional irrigation practices are now changing in many areas. The versatile hemp plant offers an alternative to fertilizer- and pesticide-dependent crops with high water demands. Hemp biorefineries will pay farmers to cultivate hemp, while preserving their opportunity to harvest and sell the more valuable seeds to PureHemp or others. Farmers will be able to provide the whole industrial hemp plant to PureHemp biorefineries for manufacturing products, many of which previously have come from oil.
PureHemp intends to benefit from the revived industrial hemp opportunity not only by becoming an important link in the emerging value chain from farm-to-consumer, but also by licensing technology packages to project developers and entrepreneurs. Employing their technology will add significant value to the emerging industry by using the entire hemp plant for the economical production of hemp-based products. With state-by-state legalization of hemp cultivation, “We’re being flooded with inquiries from around the United States,” reports Ed.
PureHemp is seeking additional domestic tonnage to prepare for the 2016 harvest that will need to be processed. “We don’t have enough hemp to process,” he says, fully aware that the commercial re-establishment of the crop is a few years from taking off. PureHemp currently pays $500 a ton for the scarce commodity, as compared with $65 per ton for corn stalks.
Ed says the only remaining challenge is to scale up. “The good news is we use extruders in our technology and the extruder industry is very scalable.” Once PureHemp obtains enough hemp, the pilot plant in Fort Lupton will process a half-ton per day, and they plan to scale up to 25 tons per day by the fall in a larger facility.
Reported hemp yields range from 1.5 to 8.7 tons of dry stems per acre. Using a conservative average of harvesting two dry tons per acre, for the proposed 25-ton per day PureHemp commercial demonstration biorefinery, this translates into about 4500 acres of hemp or about seven square miles per year (based on one harvest per year). On a much larger commercial scale, a standard 250-ton per day PureHemp biorefinery would require approximately 45,000 acres of hemp or about 70 square miles per year.
No doubt PureHemp and manufacturers who license the technology will begin to expand into other states as the cultivation of industrial hemp is legalized in each. Building infrastructure is the key to efficiently maximizing hemp’s full potential. Ultimately, it’s ideal to erect these processing facilities within 50 miles of every biomass feedstock with wood components within a 100-mile radius. Ed explains that transportation becomes uneconomical beyond that distance. “Once the technology is demonstrated commercially, we will deploy it anywhere there is a feedstock supply.” Investment and equity materials can be found at www.PureHempTech.com/Invest/. Hemp, hemp hooray!